In the October 2019 issue of Poetry Magazine, essayist John Lee Clark rights about the nature of tactile art from the blind perspective. It was an illuminating piece that had me thinking long after I’d put down the journal. Essentially, he writes about what’s important in a tactile art piece to a blind person and what elements are unnecessary (but often included because our culture thinks as sighted beings). For example, he talks about the importance of heft. Imagine a plastic toy tank. For sighted persons, the visual experience is enough to convey the ominous, dangerous menace a tank represents. But for a blind person, the weight of that light plastic toy is more important and conveys none of the same menace. If you get a chance to read Clark’s poignant essay, I recommend it.
For years, I’ve done all of my creative writing in isolation. None of my close friends have been writers. I’ve rarely bounced ideas off of other creative writers. I’ve certainly never collaborated with anyone. On a few occasions, I’ve found myself in a fiction writing critique group, but these have never lasted for some reason (and I haven’t always got the benefit out of them that I had expected to get). It has been like working in a vacuum.
But this year, I have made more of an effort to attend a poetry workshop group in the area. The poets in this group range in expertise, and there are certainly some good minds that challenge me and my writing. But I’ve also begun to reap the benefit of just being around fellow writers who are living many of the same challenges, struggles and joys as I do.
I’ve gained insight into the kinds of journals these poets are getting published in, how they are getting their books published, and which conferences they go to and the benefits they reap from those experiences. Although many of these elements seem small, they add up to a lot, in my estimation.
Whatever your passion might be, I’ve come to realize that being around others with your same passion is a healthy, important and possibly even a vital experience if you can get it.
A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the intense anxieties I get at night over the safety of my family. He said, “Yeah, that’s the curse of the artist, your active imagination.”
And after making thousands of connections in my creative writing, I finally made this one with my own life. What do we do in creative writing if not make surprising and unlikely connections (especially writing science fiction and poetry)? And the more I exercise the connection-making beast, the more easily it goes to work on my own life, especially at night when all the other noises of the day die down.
To be fair, imagination can bring you positive vision as well as anxiety. Yes, I worry over the worst possible scenarios, and believe me, imagination can create some nearly ridiculous and impossible scenarios. I also have grand (sometimes impossible) dreams of the future. And after a few years, neither of these will please your spouse.
Anxiety can be difficult to live with, but I’ve come to believe that someone has to be the worrier. Someone has to stay up at night thinking through these possibilities, so you’re not blind to the evil of the world. But it’s also good to have a partner or friend who can help you balance these fears with reality.
And as much as I believe in the capacity for evil among us, I believe in the possibility that our better natures will prevail too.
I’m interested in helping poetry to become popular again. I’m not referring to slam-style poetry (which I value), nor am I including the Instagram poets (which I consider trite; sorry guys). I want to see a renewal of non-academicians attending poetry readings. I want to see people discussing poetry in everyday conversation, without someone flinching or grimacing. On the flip side, I’m not naive enough to think we’ll be rivaling film and television. People are still going to flock to the latest Avenger movie (the market power of the Marvel franchise is an entirely different discussion, in fact). But I do think it’s reasonable to expect a poetry revival of sorts.
People need to be taught how to read and experience poetry again. Is something going wrong in the schools in this regard? (I’m not sure.) While I don’t want to see a dumbing down of poetry, I do think the art form can be made more accessible by better educating potential readers. There is so much to be gained by a renaissance in poetry’s popularity. Poetry is not only fuel for the soul, but it quietens the mind and heightens one’s sense of observation and critical thinking. Couldn’t we use a little more of that?
This past weekend, I attended the North Texas Book Festival and had the pleasure of interacting with new readers and fellow authors. These are always some of the best conversations.
The North Texas Book Festival is held annually in Denton, Texas. Home to the University of North Texas, Denton supports a vibrant cultural life of arts, music and literature. The morning of the festival, a big thunderstorm rolled through. Authors like myself dashed from our cars with our carts of books, signs and giveaways, hoping to get it all safe and dry to the venue. The rain kept many away in the morning. But as the sky cleared, festival traffic picked up, and I had the chance to meet with some of the local book nerds.
All in all, it was a great experience, and I hope to be back in Denton next year.
Although I am proceeding steadily with preparing the next two chapter books for publication, in the last few months, I have begun again to pursue my first passion – poetry.
I have been writing and reading in this area a great deal. I’ve read anthologies and journals, as well as books by Mary Oliver, Michelle Mathees and Galway Kinnell. I read through Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook twice, which is full of inspiration, and I am halfway through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, which is more comprehensive. Both are marvelous books for opening up the nuances of what it means to read and write poetry, although the authors come at it from decidedly different perspectives. Fry, an English actor and accomplished author, is much more of a traditionalist when it comes to meter. And his arguments for form in poetry, though perhaps not altogether in current “fashion,” are hard to ignore. That’s not to say that Oliver advocates against form, but it’s clear that she is much more accepting of free verse.
Although I’ve experimented recently with syllabic verse, Fry has now introduced me to the idea of accentual verse, originating from Old English poetry, that focuses on the number of accents only (and does not concern itself with the number of unaccented syllables).
I’m also a big fan of slant rhyme in poems, especially when both words do not come at the end of lines and when not overdone. For me, it imparts just that right level of musicality without being downright chant-like. Fry encourages poets to “not draw attention” to the rhyme.
I fear that some modern poets are losing the rhythm that is so much a part of good poetry. In some ways, we have become better image crafters, but that cannot be all a poem is. This point, perhaps, bears an entire blog post by itself.
For my own poetry work, I have been rather productive, creating and revising almost every day. All of which brings me immense pleasure. I have said often that writing creatively is one of my greatest joys. I marvel that I don’t always find the time for it.
Mary Oliver wrote in A Poetry Handbook that she routinely revises her poems 41 times each! I have found this illuminating and encouraging, although I’m still probably only revising around five times a piece. Like most art, the complexity that makes a piece so interesting comes through in its layers. It is through revision that we create these layers, these levels, of meaning, nuance and imagery.
This past Saturday, I had the chance to meet with local readers, fans and other authors at the Author Fair put on by the Richardson Public Library. Library fairs are the best because attendees are interested in one thing — books. As you might guess, I could talk all day on that very subject.
In addition to meeting with several terrific area fans and readers, I spoke with some fascinating authors, such as TJ Xia (can’t wait to read his super well-researched book on creativity and innovation), T.D. Walker (looking forward to her book of science-fiction poetry next year) and Diane Cobalt (writer of successful suspense trilogy Fatal Impact). I also picked up several new ideas for marketing and author networking.
If you’re in the area and you missed the Richardson Library’s first author fair this year, look for it next year. I plan to be there with a new book or two to share with you.
I’m more than excited to be joining the 30 regional writers attending the Dallas Book Festival on April 7. I’ll be signing and selling my three science-fiction books for kids. So, if you’re in the area, please stop by and say hello. Ask me questions about my current books or try to pry information out of me concerning the three new books I have planned for later this year. If you see this blog and tell me at the festival, I’ll give you two free bookmarks and a 25% discount.
I’m not the only reason to attend the Dallas Book Festival, of course. T J. Erik Johnsson Central Library is probably the coolest in the metroplex. The unique architecture will intrigue, and they actually have a copy of Shakespeare’s first folio worth at least a cool million.
This free event includes story time, author discussions, book signings and musical performances. If you click on the “Festival Marketplace” link, you’ll see bios of the exhibiting authors, including me.
Location: J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, 1515 Young Street Dallas, Dallas, Texas
Date/Time: April 7, 2018, 9am – 5 pm
While I think eBooks are a terrific development in literature, there’s nothing quite like the feel of a book in your hands. And there’s nothing quite like collecting those fantastic boxes of wonder and opportunity in your very own home library. And why shouldn’t our kids get in on the fun?
A children’s home library doesn’t have to be fancy, nor does it need be over-stocked. But when you show interest in helping your child set up his own library, you’re also communicating the importance you and your family place on books. Here are some ideas to make your children’s home library more organized, inviting, attractive and useful.
Setting up Your Children’s Library
For starters, your child’s home library doesn’t even need to be a bookshelf. It can be a crate or a basket or one of those cubicle cubes.
First, let’s consider if there is a place close to our library to curl up with a great book. Ensure there’s good lighting for those little reading eyes. Try furnishing this little nook with a beanbag or maybe a big pillow with a blanket. Make it inviting.
Organize Those Books
Get your child involved by encouraging her to organize the library with you. Certainly, if he’s passionate about it, he can even do it by himself. Feed her suggestions, as needed. Your child’s participation in the process will mean she’s more likely to keep that library organized and to use it.
Here are some ways you and your child may choose to organize the books, but I’m sure you can think of more:
- Organize by color. If you have a lot of differently colored spines, this can be an enchanting way to beautify that space.
- Organize by type of book (non-fiction, fiction, science-fiction, sports, science, history, etc.) Perhaps include a “to-be-read” section too.
- Organize alphabetically by title or author.
If you want, you can even create section markers from poster board. Use several different colors of poster board, cut to appropriate size and write a vertical label along one side. Consider laminating the marker for great durability.
Maybe you have room for a display area where the child can prop up their favorite books.
You’ll also want to consider rotating out books that your children have outgrown. These can be donated or shared with friends with age appropriate children. And for those special books with which you don’t wish to part, save them in a storage area for the next generation (hoarders unite!)
Here are some great ideas for children’s home libraries that other people who are not me have dreamt up:
- It’s a couch! https://www.pinterest.com/pin/476818679274974565/
- Shelves on the wall: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/239113061444385592/
- More shelves on the wall: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/437201076306358754/
- Now that’s a nook: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/404901822741196781/
- Display-style with stuffed animals: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/4574037098909098/
Last night, as I read Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and felt myself in the grips of his imaginative world, I was struck by all the different ways writers can grab you in a story. While there are certainly formulas many writer often follow to tell a good story, I think the best thing a writer can do is to write toward his unique strengths. Cixin certainly has a knack for turning hard science fiction into easy-to-follow concepts that are natural extensions of the story, but he’s also created a fascinating world, a world that he reveals masterfully and at a pace that keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.
But I can be equally caught up in the way another writer crafts characters or dialogue, or crafts sensory descriptions, or plots cliffhangers and plot twists. And of course, two different writers can do those things very differently, but both well. For example, my favorite modern author, China Miéville, like Cixin, has a penchant for masterful world-building. But his style of exposition is vastly different from Cixin’s. For one thing, it’s full of delicious adjectives and a laundry list of visual and sensory details. And yet, I’m in love with both of their writing.
I had a fiction writing professor once who said that he could teach us technique but not style. I’ve certainly found that to be true (even though defining style is a bigger task in itself). A writer has to find his or her own style. We borrow ideas and learn from what has come before us, certainly. But at the end of the day, an artist has to explore what makes them an artist. What is it that you have to say that’s different than the next guy? Or how do you present it differently? Find that one thing and do the hell out of it. Be the best at that one thing.